Home Is Where the Heart Is: Family Melodrama and Taiwan’s Anti-Japanese Films, 1972-1982

Mei-Hsuan Chinag (江美萱)

Although World War II ended more than seventy years ago, the memories of Japan’s imperial invasion and colonial rule during the war do not simply belong to the past, but instead constantly haunted the cinema of Taiwan during the last decades. Among the various cinematic responses to Japanese aggression, 1970s’ anti-Japanese war films stand out. In fact, the number of Taiwan’s anti-Japanese films reached its peak in the 1970s after Japan signed the Joint Communiqué with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1972. Japan’s “political betrayal,” as it was then reported by Taiwan’s news media, along with Taiwan’s loss of its seat in the United Nations in the previous year, dealt a double blow to the nation during that time. Therefore, with the backing of Taiwan’s nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government, filmmakers have consistently put Japanese villains in their films for the rest of the decade.

This paper examines the trope of home in Taiwan’s anti-Japanese films from the 1970s. Because of the spatial integration of domestic space with the battlefield in most of these anti-Japanese films, the trope of home is crucial to the understanding of the intricate relationship between the domestic and the national in 1970s’ Taiwan. With the specific examples of Liu Jia-chang’s Victory (1976) and Xu Jin-liang’s The Operations of Spring Wind (1977), the paper examines ways in which family issues blur the boundary between traditional war film and family melodrama. While anti-Japanese films are often thought of as a masculine genre, some of these films actually combine aesthetic expressions and issues often associated with melodrama. Through the investigation of the intersection between family pathos and anti-Japanese sentiments, the paper investigates how family issues are employed to enhance the KMT government’s nationalist discourse. By comparing the two films, the paper further questions the role of Taiwanese local culture in KMT’s diasporic narrative and its discourse of home during the 1970s.

After the outbreak of the Korean War in the 1950s, Cold War ideology dominated US policies in East Asia. During that time, both Japan and the KMT Taiwan depended on the United States’ military protection and economic support; therefore, both were forced to leave their old enmity aside to join the US government’s anti-Communist campaign (Xu 2012). As a result of the international politics, the KMT government marked a clear distinction between the “friendly postwar Japan” and the “malicious imperialist Japan” in its political campaign. The official censor actively regulated the over-sensational anti-Japanese themes in films; as a result, there were only sporadic anti-Japanese films in Taiwan before 1960, and most of them drew inspiration from Taiwan’s colonial past. For example, Blood Shed on the Mountain (1957) centers on the famous Musha Incident in 1930, and Bloody Battle at Tapani (1958) is based on the Tapani Incident in 1915. Later, anti-Japanese spy film inspired by western secret-agent movies like Dr. No (1962) became a popular genre to dominate the Taiwan film industry in the mid-1960s. Such spy films were extremely popular, and many of them had three to four sequels, such as Number One in the World (1964) and Three Beautiful Blind Female Spies (1966). In line with the government’s diplomatic stance, most of these films actually put the blames on Chinese underdogs and traitors instead of targeting Japan.

After Japan broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1972, the state-owned film company, Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), began to openly confront Japan in its filmmaking. The anti-Japanese films made during that time period continue the spirit of healthy realist film, a movement introduced by CMPC’s general manager Gong Hong in 1964 that emphasizes cultural and moral cleansing within and through cinema. Although healthy realist film tried to break away from hard-core propaganda film, it still trumpets the KMT government’s success in constructing Taiwan through various genres, such as melodrama and comedy. Different from his predecessor, the new CMPC manager in the 1970s, Mei Chang-lin, had a rich experience working with national policy films. Under the new leadership, CMPC borrowed Mei Chang-lin’s expertise in making military and war films and inaugurated a new era of anti-Japanese war films, which also led the other private film companies to confront Japan and openly display Japan’s past atrocities in films without any constraints. In fact, there had never been a time when the film industry in Taiwan was so devoted to the making of anti-Japanese films, and it produced at least one such movie every year. Most of these films are fictionalized retellings of important battles during China’s Eight-Years’ War of Resistance and conflicts in colonial Taiwan. While some of these famous anti-Japanese films, such as Everlasting Glory (1974), Eight Hundred Heroes (1975), and Heroes of the Eastern Sky (1977), follow the style of traditional war film, focusing mainly on combat and warfare, most of the anti-Japanese films actually integrate themes of romantic affairs and family issues. More specifically, although the 1970s anti-Japanese war film is often coded as a masculine genre, they also adopt emotional excess and heightened dramatization typically associated with melodrama and woman’s pictures. Furthermore, family issues are often employed to enhance the external complications, melding the familial with the national. Victory is exemplary of such tendency toward generic blurring between the family melodrama and the war film.[i]

Among all the anti-Japanese films set in colonial Taiwan, Liu Jia-chang’s Victory was one of the highest-grossing in both Taiwan and Hong Kong during the 1970s.[ii] Its influence on Taiwanese society in the 1970s is best illustrated by the fact that it was played over and over on television in the following years, reappearing whenever there were celebrations for Taiwan’s national holidays. Set against the backdrop of Japanese colonialism, the story of Victory centers on the two brothers in the Lin family, Ju-guang and Ju-young, and their patriotic deeds after the execution of their father, who tries to protect the family cemetery from being torn down by the Japanese army. The elder brother, Ju-guang, leaves his wife and child in Taiwan to join the KMT army on the mainland; the younger brother, Ju-young, a seemingly hooligan figure, seduces the Japanese general’s daughter in order to sneak into the Japanese camp and bomb its controlling office.

As is illustrated in the Chinese expression that appear in many of these anti-Japanese films, “nation’s enmity and family’s hatred” (guochou jiahen), the revenge for the loved ones are often sublimated into nationalist pathos. Along the same line, personal desire and fantasy become secondary, as the private and the domestic function only to support the larger nationalist discourse. For instance, in Victory, Ju-young’s childhood sweetheart looks down on him and turns down his courtship until he sacrifices himself in the assassination mission. In other words, instead of loving Ju-young as an individual, she is in love with the martyr that he has become and the image of the fearless nation that he represents. In these anti-Japanese films, family is never just an autonomous human community because conflicts, separations, or even loss within a family are often used to enhance the external complications or transformed into nationalist rhetoric. In Victory, similar to Mr. Lin’s death that triggered the villagers’ patriotism, the suicide of Ju-guang’s wife, Wen-ying, also plays an important role in justifying the relationships in the domestic realm and mobilizing the values desired by the government. Just when the elder brother Ju-guang gradually develops feelings toward a courageous mainland army nurse, which threatens the moral standard upholds by the film, the film arranges his wife back in Taiwan, Wen-ying, being mistaken by the villagers for having an illicit affair with a Japanese general. In order to prove her chastity and loyalty to the nation, she commits suicide by drowning herself in the water dam. Wen-ying’s timely suicide and extreme patriotism becomes a plot device to both rationalize Ju-guang’s romantic affair on the mainland and, at the same time, restore the moral order. On the other hand, Ju-guang and the army nurse’s relationship also serves to legitimize KMT’s takeover of Taiwan. In the end, Ju-guang brings the woman back to Taiwan, and their marriage shows a parallel to Taiwan’s “marriage” with the KMT China in 1945.

The nationalist message in Victory is also constructed and negotiated through the relationship between the home in Taiwan and the root on mainland. After the death of his father, Ju-guang and his fellow villagers secretly cross the Taiwan Strait to join the KMT army and help the KMT spies from China to stage rebellions against the Japanese in Taiwan. Similar to other anti-Japanese films during the time, the figure of father and the trope of ancestral grave serve as a symbol of bloodline and lineage; therefore, the destruction of these symbols also signifies detachment from the past and the cultural affiliation with the mainland. It is exactly this forced separation that brings out the longing for the reconnection with the homeland in the film. In fact, the motif of root seeking and homecoming to the mainland China dominated the anti-Japanese films during the 1970s. As in Gone with Honor (1979), the film’s protagonist, Young-yuan (whose name literally means “forever-origin”), also goes back to northern China and miraculously finds people from his tribe and relatives from the same family line. These films show that Taiwanese people and their Chinese comrades fight against the Japanese and reclaim the homeland together; however, in reality, during the colonial period in which these films are set, there were only sporadic Taiwanese people’s anti-Japanese movements in the early years. Contrary to Victory’s representation of the patriotic Taiwanese villagers, Taiwanese men, including the aboriginals, were enlisted in the Japanese army as a result of Japan’s assimilation policies and the Imperial Subject Movement during the colonial period. Instead of fighting for the KMT government, they were sent to fight in Southeast Asia, and against the Chinese on the mainland. Through the re-narration of the nation’s history and the re-establishment of the kinship, the 1970s’ anti-Japanese films produces an imagined and utopic homeland, and create a spatial and temporal continuity between the KMT China and colonial Taiwan. More specifically, although these films are set in the past, their narrative pattern actually reenacts the trauma the KMT government was then undergoing in the 1970s. The KMT government’s status as the legitimate representative of China was put to test by the series of diplomatic setbacks, causing growing consciousness of a sense of homelessness. Therefore, this exaggerated bond between colonial Taiwan and KMT China also projects the KMT government’s desires and fears of the possibility of return to the utopic home on the continent.

The KMT government’s diasporic narrative is made complicated by films like Xu Jin-liang’s The Operations of Spring Wind, one of the rare examples of 1970s’ anti-Japanese films that showcase local Taiwanese culture. The story of Operations of Spring Wind evolves around a group of Taiwanese patriots, who try to undermine Japan’s kamikaze project with the help from mainland secret agents. Different from other postwar anti-Japanese films, Xu’s film incorporates Taiwanese dialects and local Taiwanese culture in it. After the decline of Taiwanese dialect films in the late 1960s, the use of Taiwanese dialect was limited to only one or two sentences spoken by the Taiwanese characters—usually villains—in Taiwan cinema. Therefore, it is unusual for Xu Jin-liang to keep the characters’ mother tongue of Taiwanese dialect in this film. Furthermore, local religious practices, such as parades of the Seventh Lord and the Eighth Lord, and rituals, such as traditional Taiwanese wedding ceremony and the performance of Taiwanese opera, are used to add more local flavors to the film. In fact, the film also stars the famous Taiwanese opera actress Yang Li-hua, who plays the character as an opera singer admired by a Japanese general. In addition to showcasing Taiwanese culture, these “Taiwanese elements” also serve as a cover for the anti-Japanese movements in the film. For example, in one of the scenes, a Taiwanese bride’s family hid a Chinese secret agent in a dowry box during the wedding procession in order to help the secret agent from being caught. Similarly, a group of Chinese secret agents disguise themselves as actors and actresses in an opera troop to sneak into the Japanese camp, and the opera troop’s manager also attempts to murder the Japanese general during the performance of the Taiwanese opera, The Assassination of the First Emperor of China.

In a way, these nativist elements are more than a cover for Taiwanese people’s anti-Japanese movement in the film; they also serve as a disguise for the KMT government’s diasporic narrative, as is illustrated in the film’s theme song, also the film’s Chinese title, “Wang chun feng [Spring Breeze].” Written by Li Lin-qiu, this Taiwanese dialect song about a woman’s longing for a man has been extremely popular since the colonial period, and it also inspired the making of the film, Wang Chun Feng, in 1937.[iii] The song was once rewritten into a Japanese patriotic song, but was discounted by the KMT government after the inauguration of the Mandarin Speaking Policy in postwar Taiwan. In Xu Jin-liang’s film, the song is played in the background in several scenes, except for one when a Taiwanese sing-song girl performs it at a tea house. Upon hearing the song, the male protagonist offers his interpretation of the lyrics: “a fragile woman’s longing for her lover is no different from the oppressed Taiwanese people’s desire to return to the motherland’s embrace.” Compared to a fragile woman, Taiwan is thus depicted as feminized and vulnerable, needing the protection from the KMT China. In line with the ideological messages in other 1970s’ anti-Japanese films, The Operations of Spring Wind gives new meanings to the Taiwanese dialect song and uses it to articulate the KMT government’s nationalist discourse and its desire of home on the mainland.

Although some scholars argue that films like The Operations of Spring Wind reflect a shift from KMT’s China-centered diasporic narrative to the inward-looking nativist trend, upon closer inspection, the film’s superficial portrayal of the local culture does not really reflect Taiwanese people’s experience under the colonial rule. Although the film departs from its contemporaries to showcase local culture in Taiwan, it still promotes a Chinese origin on mainland instead of a home in Taiwan. Furthermore, it tends to neglect people in Taiwan’s ambivalent attitude towards the Japanese. After fifty years’ colonial experience and separation from China, the violence and corruption that accompanied the KMT’s arrival only deepened the disappointment and frustration the Taiwanese people have toward the new regime. The KMT government’s establishment of power in Taiwan, not unlike the previous foreign colonizers, intensified local people’s resentment against the authority and further created the ethnic divide between local Taiwanese (benshengren) and mainlander (waishengren), who came to Taiwan with the KMT army. No unlike other anti-Japanese films in the 1970s, The Operations of Spring Wind does not question the dominant nationalist narrative provided by the KMT government since its relocation to Taiwan nor does it reflect or evoke any Taiwanese consciousness.

While these anti-Japanese films from the 1970s obviously present the ideological renditions of the colonial history, they also reveal the KMT government’s conception of home at a time of crisis. In other words, they show more than the nation’s resentment toward Japan’s “betrayal”; they also create a national myth from the KMT’s perspective, as illustrated in the films’ re-narration, exaggeration, and erasure of the nation’s past. With the changing social and cultural milieu in the second half of the 1970s, films like The Operations of Spring Wind try to incorporate elements of Taiwanese culture, yet still neglect Taiwanese people’s experience under the colonial rule. It is until later that the KMT government’s identity crisis surfaced in anti-Japanese films, such as My Native Land (1980), a biopic of the famous writer Chung Li-ho. In the film, the Taiwanese protagonist escapes to mainland China, his “native land,” during the Japanese colonial rule, but was driven back to Taiwan after WWII because of Chinese people’s discrimination against people from Taiwan. While the KMT government tried to maintain its myth of the “native land,” the film could no longer keep up the utopic representation of the motherland and the biased nationalist discourse. Later, Taiwan’s film industry started to depolarize and de-melodramatize the depiction of Taiwan-Japan relations and colonial history with the inauguration of Taiwan New Cinema. While a few older generation filmmakers continued to struggle with anti-Japanese filmmaking, some Taiwan New Cinema filmmakers had already begun to revisit the colonial history and provide an alternative to the postwar anti-Japanese narrative presented by the KMT government. As Chen Kuan Hsing argues, before Taiwan New Cinema, “‘colonialism’ does not seem to exist in the structure of historical memory for waishengren (mainlanders), just as ‘cold war’ does not occupy a central place in that of benshengren (local Taiwanese)” (2005: 52–53). As the conception of “nation” changes, the nationalist discourse also depends on a different representation of home. Instead of serving as ornaments in the KMT’s nationalist discourse, Taiwanese people’s real life experiences and psychology under Japanese rule began to surface on the silver screen.


[i] Other examples include Land of the Undaunted (1975), Gone with Honor (1979), just to name a few.

[ii] Victory was played in movie theaters at Taipei for twenty-one days from January 31 to February 20 in 1976. It also won several honors at the 1976 Golden Horse Awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Music in a Non-Musical Genre, Best Photography, and Best Recording.

[iii] Wang Chun Feng [Spring Breeze] (1937) was directed by Ando Taro and Huang Liangmeng. The film is about a woman forced into prostitution before deciding to sacrifice herself for the happiness of her lover.